The long-awaited General Teaching Council has been given greater power, but doubts persist. Frances Rafferty reports
It has been a long time in coming, but at last teachers will join the grown-up professions of doctors, dentists and accountants and have their own professional body, the General Teaching Council.
But will it be a poodle, as Liberal Democrat Lord Tope originally feared, or will it raise the status of the profession and improve standards and practice?
The legislation which establishes the council was savaged, particularly in the House of Lords. The Conservatives, who had blocked a GTC while in Government came out as the council's best friend. Baroness Young tabled an amendment giving it more power and putting it on a par with the General Medical Council.
The Government overturned Baroness Young's amendment, but subsequently was persuaded to give the council greater power and to stipulate that teachers will form the majority of members.
Sir Malcolm Thornton was the chairman of the education and employment select committee during the last government. He sponsored a doomed private member's Bill to set up a GTC and believes Labour has got it about right.
He said: "The council isn't an idea whose time has come, it's an idea that is long overdue.
"It has to be an evolutionary body because it must prove itself first before getting further powers. But it is essential that it is responsible for registering and deregistering teachers.
"The fear in the past was that it would be hijacked by the teacher unions. That is why getting the balance of the membership right is crucial."
Last week the Department for Education and Employment published Teaching: High Status, High Standards, a consultation document on the composition of the council, which is due to begin work in 2000.
In the foreword Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, says: "The council will be a major new professional voice for teachers. It will have a substantial role in maintaining and improving high standards of professional practice and professional conduct. The council's work must command the respect of teachers, of parents and of the public. An authoritative, balanced, effective and independent council is a vital part of that."
It is proposed that the body should have 55 members - 20 teachers elected by single transferable vote, nine union-nominated teachers, 13 representative of other bodies (for example local authorities and teacher-training organisations), and 13 appointed by the Secretary of State.
The document was welcomed by GTC England and Wales, a group campaigning for a teaching council since the mid-80s. "The Government has gone a good way towards meeting our concerns," said the chairman Professor John Tomlinson.
The initial response of the teacher unions has been largely favourable. John Bangs, from the National Union of Teachers, said: "We have supported the Government's approach. There are issues that need to be resolved, for example the nomination procedure for the teacher election, but ministers have listened and made the right moves."
The National Association of Head Teachers praised the Government for allowing the council to remove teachers for serious incompetence and misconduct. But the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said it was concerned that headteachers were over-represented.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the apparent overall teacher majority of four was too small.